Throughout history, there are many examples of dictatorships, terrorists and war criminals attacking cultural heritage sites with the aim of rapidly conquering societies and erasing their cultural identities.
For example, the deliberate ethnic cleansing and destruction of libraries and museums during the Bosnian War; the Taliban destroying artifacts of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage; ISIS is attacking important religious sites and monuments in Syria and Iraq. Each of them is an effort to erase a unique cultural heritage and demolish any sign of multiculturalism.
“In many cases, those who fetishize holy objects or sacred places are the very people who show the most depraved indifference to human life.”
Russian forces in Ukraine are currently employing a similar tactic: they are destroying museums and theaters calling them “Azov military bases”. It’s not new. In Ukraine, we have seen both savage attacks on cultural heritage and deliberate cultural cleansing.
For centuries, our intellectuals have been persecuted and assaulted, and our sites of cultural history have been attacked and destroyed by Russia under different rulers. There can be no conversation that Ukraine and Russia are brotherly nations because we Ukrainians have repeatedly revived our culture from the ruins of Russian invasions and persecutions.
I was born in the central part of Ukraine in September 1991, a month after our independence. My whole family spoke Ukrainian; I never switched to Russian, except in cases where there was no other means of communication. Not because of hatred, but because the Russian language and culture have never belonged to me.
I grew up in an environment where education mattered most. I started reading when I was three, when I was nine I went from a public school to what we call a gymnasium – a special (but still free) school where you were expected of you that you excel.
And I excelled.
My main subjects were Ukrainian language and literature, history, world literature, English and German. We even had a separate topic called “Ukrainian Diaspora Literature” which helped us dive deep into the exile of the Ukrainian elite.
I learned that exile was not the worst-case scenario. More gruesome were the mass executions of writers, artists, and composers, as well as their deaths by suicide. One of the most prominent modernist writers of the 1920s and 1930s, Mykola Khvylovy, committed suicide in May 1933 before the Communists could execute him.
He was one of the founders and leaders of the VAPLITE — a literary organization that was among the centers of Ukrainian revival in the 1920s. The main idea of VAPLITE was the revival of a Ukrainian literary tradition and our nation in general, moving Ukraine away from Russian influence and acquiring the European approach to culture and philosophy.
“It is on psychological Europe that we must concentrate. It is Europe that will lead our young art on a great and joyful path towards the global goal.
When you walk around the center of Kyiv, just up from Maidan Square on Institutska Street, you see the magnificent October Palace. In modern Ukraine, people go there to listen to international and Ukrainian music, but under Stalin’s repressive regime, dozens of Ukrainian cultural figures were tortured and killed in its basements.
First were Khvylovy’s colleagues from VAPLITE, followed by other Ukrainian writers, artists, philosophers, translators, musicians and performers.
Their names come to mind whenever I am near the October Palace: Hryhorii Kosynka, Mykhailo Semenko, Mykola Ivasyuk, Mike Johansen, Ivan and Taras Krushelnytsky. They were supposed to be our Kafkas, Camuses and Hemingways. Our Dalis, Picassos and Pollocks. But all that remains is a short period of the active revival of Ukrainian culture – their letters and the crucial ideas I grew up with.
A few years ago, my friends and I went to see an exceptional exhibition at the Ukrainian National Museum. It was dedicated to Ukrainian composers and artists of the 1960s, who were dissidents – called shistdesyatnyky in Ukrainian. Wandering through the ancient corridors of the high-ceilinged museum, we were exposed to fascinating works by forgotten Ukrainian artists while listening to music from the same period.
Each new room in the museum was dedicated to a unique theme. In one room you could hear music being recorded in the kitchen with people’s voices.
In another, there was a small orchestra playing various arrangements, many of which were performed in Ukraine for the first time in decades. Although there was no possibility for the dissidents to work together and create a real cultural polemic, the themes of their work were aligned with world trends.
Most dissidents survived by hiding their works or fleeing the Soviet Union. Some of them were in constant struggle with the regime. The poet Vasyl Stus was one of these dissidents. He died in a Russian prison in 1985, unaware that he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Stus has been a symbol of Ukrainian resistance and will for several decades.
“This pain – the alcohol of agony,
this pain, crystalline and stiff.
Try to retype all your curses,
try to rewrite grief.
The work of these Ukrainian dissidents continues in independent Ukraine. Prominent writers, musicians and artists are joining the global cultural scene, but with constant attacks from Russia, it’s hard to sustain.
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The Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbass was followed by an attempt to demolish Ukrainian cultural identity in these regions. The most famous story concerns Izolyatsiia, a former art center and cultural fund, turned into a prison after the invasion. Ukrainians have been tortured and killed within its walls since the Russian occupation.
“Mind Assassins” is a term coined in an essay by Christopher Hitchens, where he described the culture war that began when Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie. This war continues.
After the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Ukrainian film productions, book publishing, art exhibitions, concerts, competitions, awards, cultural grants and financial support most stopped. It will take us years, even decades, to restart our cultural engine. Yet I still hear the world fetishizing Russian culture instead of talking about the one that is really under threat.
I have spent my whole life building an unbreakable national and cultural identity.
Together with other Ukrainians, we are fighting against the barbaric methods of the Russian Federation which uses destructive weapons of war to try to destroy our homes and our identity. We save our Ukrainian museums and works of art from the bombardment of Russian bombs.
We weep over crumbling theaters and historic buildings. We will never question whether our culture has the right to exist, but somehow it seems the world continues to question whether we should exist.
The war with Russia didn’t start in 2022 – it didn’t even start in 2014. Ukraine has been fighting with these killers of our minds for centuries. Assassins who have never succeeded in destroying their target, and who never will.
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Anastasiia Marushevska is a Ukrainian writer, communications consultant for cultural institutions, government and technology companies, and curator at the Projector Institute.
This article was originally published on Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.